The key question, then, is how to translate the high-level objectives of a community and the needs of its audiences into a set of clear functional priorities that inform technology selection and configuration. Developing a set of user scenarios, which are concise statements describing tasks or actions that users will wish to perform in the community, is a successful approach. The scenarios might describe several steps for a user to get from point A to point B to achieve a certain informational or transactional goal (e.g., find and download a useful resource; discover, read and comment on a post; or search for and connect with a peer working on the same topic). These need not be especially formal or exhaustive, but they should be done well enough that those planning the community capture all the key illustrative stories pertinent to the audiences in question.

Wenger, White, and Smith (2009) develop a list of common orientations that communities can have, one or more of which should emerge in the scenarios. These are as follows:

  • Meeting support—Some communities emerge from one or more meetings. A face-to-face meeting may spark follow-up online gatherings or a series of meetings may deliberately entail a blended approach, having a mix of online and offline sessions. There may even be fully online meetings. Online, meeting-oriented communities may engage in presentations, sharing of materials and information, or decision making.
  • Open-ended conversations—Some communities are represented best by their archetype, the classic discussion group. There may be face-to-face meetings, but the community is primarily built upon a series of ongoing online conversations.
  • Project infrastructure—Some communities form around a project, with an online community serving as one piece of the overall project infrastructure. These communities are focused on sharing key information, creating artifacts, and solving problems of practice.
  • Content collection and organization—Communities have formed around the task of collecting and categorizing information to make it useful for members to find and access. In some cases, the community also develops syntheses of the information. These communities obviously rely on repositories for files and links of various forms and the ability to categorize them in ways that make sense to community members.
  • Access to expertise—Although knowledge can be useful in the form of collected content, there is often a need for finding the right person with the right expertise. Communities can form around this orientation, presenting experts and making them available to its members for questions and requests.
  • Building and maintaining relationships—Relationships between people matter, and some communities orient themselves to building and maintaining interpersonal relationships. They may do this for explicit learning, or they may just want to maintain a network for personal or professional reasons. These communities may be open, but they often are closed, with members caring deeply about who becomes a member.
  • Individual participation within a larger whole—Communities can be become spaces where individuals can participate quite differently from one to another. There is a higher level of personalization and asynchronous activity support in these communities than in others.
  • Community cultivation—Some communities have a set of members who actively care for content. They mine community content for valuable information and repackage it in easily accessible forms. These communities require active governance and accepted leadership to facilitate the work.
  • Context-serving—Some communities are distinct in that they serve a clear mission that gives them unique identity. They may do this because they bring people from different organizations together to focus on a particular problem. They may also exist within a single organization. Some may be open and some may be closed. They may take the form of any of the other communities described here, but the context in which they work stands out as a key feature.

Another way to think about scenarios is to consider the levels of interaction that are desirable, the kind of knowledge development community leaders and stakeholders want to occur, the kind of resources they can put toward the venture, and the characteristics of the desired members of the community. Possible levels of interaction are as follows:

  • One-way dissemination—Some communities primarily provide a one-way dissemination of useful knowledge or resources from a central knowledge producer (or group of producers) to participants who are primarily knowledge consumers. Participants might post comments about the knowledge being disseminated, ask questions, or post suggestions for what else would be useful, but the flow of knowledge is primarily in one direction.
  • Shared development—Communities that support a group of users working together toward some end—such as planning an event, writing a document, managing a project, and so on—build knowledge in multiple people at once (though not always at a uniform rate) as each creates something new, more or less in parallel.
  • Many-to-many interactions—Some communities support many-to-many interactions among participants. The knowledge might still flow primarily from a small pool of active users to broader pool of participants, but the users tend to be peers, whether knowledge producers or consumers. This type of online community interaction is the most difficult to foster, as it often relies on volunteerism among the participants to take the time to contribute ideas, questions, opinions, and so on. Motivating users to actually post comments or contribute knowledge is much more difficult than motivating users to consume useful knowledge posted by others.

Both these lenses can help identify relationships between and fill gaps in the collection of audience scenarios that will guide technical implementation.

Once those developing the community have identified audience scenarios, they can prioritize them against the overall community goals and the target audiences’ needs. The process proceeds in this way:

1.     Map discrete audience needs to corresponding audience scenarios (e.g., if an audience is school technology administrators needing to understand mobile devices, matching scenarios might include ones for accessing a knowledge repository and submitting questions to experts).

2.     If not already explicitly done, assign an importance (1–3 scale) to each audience and each stated audience need.

3.     Use these importance ratings to prioritize the list of scenarios, with those scenarios mapped to the most important audiences and needs rising to the top.

4.     In parallel, assign similar importance values to the community goals. Those scenarios that most clearly support the most important goals would gain additional priority. Although these quantitative weightings provide a good first step, in almost all cases, the prospective community manager must layer some subjective analysis on top of the scores to arrive at the optimal set of functional priorities.

It is always tempting to create a large list of priority scenarios—and therefore features—in order to address the full range of problems that may exist for the target audiences. Those developing a community should take a hard look at the final set of priority scenarios and apply a critical eye to them. In addition to being true to the goals and user needs, they should represent a small number of discrete, well-connected activities (and thus lead to a small amount of community functionality). These activities should provide sufficient variety to engage potential community members with different preferences while simultaneously not spreading member attention too thinly or overwhelming new members with options. As the Connect and Empower: Online Communities of Practice in Education, notes, communities will be more effective to the extent that they try to do a small number of things well rather than provide solutions—often ultimately mediocre—to a large number of potential problems at their launch.

The same is true, by the way, for existing communities. A community that is failing to see activity and growth might be trying to address too many audience scenarios at one time by offering too many different features. It should review the scenarios it is trying to address, reprioritize in light of goals and audience needs, and turn off technical elements related to lower priority items.

Next: Functionality and Pilot Testing

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